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Emotional Boundaries

If you haven't been following along, you might want to check out my previous posts on Physical Boundaries, Conversational Boundaries, Material Boundaries, and Time Boundaries each of which covers a different way to protect and differentiate yourself at work and in life.

In this post, we'll be looking at one of the trickier boundaries, Emotional Boundaries.

Emotional Boundaries – To choose how emotionally available you are to others, how much of others’ energy you take on

Many of us want to make other people happy -- it's somewhat natural. But without emotional boundaries, we do this to our detriment. We listen to others complain, gripe, or speak negatively and walk away feeling worse ourselves.

Good emotional boundaries allow us space to be compassionate with another person without being overwhelmed by their energy or problems. To be there for them but to recognize that their problems are not something you have to carry, solve, or even be involved in. To help coaches enforce this boundary with clients, the International Coach Federation has as one of its core competencies acknowledging that clients are responsible for their own choices and believing clients are "naturally creative, resourceful and whole." We don't have to save people, and you don't either.

Similarly, healthy emotional boundaries are about standing up for your own emotions and not letting someone else tell you what you are or aren't feeling. It's also recognizing that you are responsible for your own emotional well-being and that you're not dependent on someone else to take care of you.

Essentially: you stay in your lane, I'll stay in mine, and we can take better care of each other that way. (Unsurprisingly, strong emotional boundaries often go hand in hand with good conversational, physical, and time boundaries, though it's not required.)

I also like to think of good emotional boundaries like a raincoat. When I'm wearing my raincoat, I don't care what kind of emotional rain or how much of it comes my way; I don't get soggy. I stay snug and dry inside my coat no matter what the weather.

So what might the "weather" look like when it comes? Emotional boundary violations can sometimes look like:

  • Sharing too much too soon

  • Emotional dumping

  • Expecting someone to rescue you

  • Pushing someone else to share information they’re not comfortable with

  • Giving unsolicited advice (what I like to call "shoulding all over somebody")

  • Ridiculing or invalidating someone else's emotions

Recently, my daughter had strep throat. A pretty standard school-age sickness, sure, but my kiddo HATES medicine with the burning passion of a thousand suns. So I was worried she wouldn't take the antibiotics and then end up with scarlet fever or who knows what. In talking with a friend, I was starting to get really worried when he cut me off, saying, "this is not something to worry about. Cancer is something to worry about."

Now, he was right. She took the medicine and is absolutely fine. But the response I got at that moment was a violation of my emotional boundaries -- I'm entitled to worry about my child even if she doesn't have cancer. I told my friend that he was right, cancer is something to worry about, but I happen to also be worrying about this, and would he please not tell me what I can and can't worry about? He apologized and everything is fine between us, but it was important to me to establish that boundary: he doesn't get to tell me how I'm supposed to feel (or not feel).

Other ways to stand up for your emotional boundaries include:

  • “I want to support you right now, but I just don’t have it in me.”

  • “Please don't take your frustration/anger/disappointment/etc. out on me.”

  • “I care about you but this is over my head.”

  • "I'm glad you're so excited and I want to hear more about it, but can we do it when I have more energy, too?"

  • "I know this is frustrating for you, but there's only so much I can take in right now."

Emotional and conversational boundaries can be closely related -- remember the story of how Fernando and I put a rule in place about complaining in our office? Sometimes you need a boundary for the content of the complaining and sometimes you need it for the energy. Either way, if someone is complaining and it's draining to you, it's a good time to enforce a boundary.

Think about where your emotional boundaries are being violated, and by whom. What could you do to stand up for yourself or ask for some space from the other person's feelings?

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